Nootropic (new-tro-pik) is the term for supplements, also known as smart drugs, that improve brain function. They can be food substances like phenethylamine and L-Theanine, found in chocolate and green tea, respectively. Nootropics also include extracted and purified components of medicinal plants, as well as substances synthesized from chemical precursors, such as piracetam, the world's first official nootropic (piracetam was created in 1964 in Belgium by a team of scientists whose leader, Dr. Corneliu E. Giurgea, coined the term). Since then piracetam has been widely used as a cognitive enhancer and to treat neurological diseases like Alzheimer's.
Do you start your day with a cup (or two, or three) of coffee? It tastes delicious, but it’s also jump-starting your brain because of its caffeine content. Caffeine is definitely a nootropic substance—it’s a mild stimulant that can alleviate fatigue and improve concentration, according to the Mayo Clinic. Current research shows that coffee drinkers don’t suffer any ill effects from drinking up to about four cups of coffee per day. Caffeine is also found in tea, soda, and energy drinks. Not too surprisingly, it’s also in many of the nootropic supplements that are being marketed to people looking for a mental boost. Take a look at these 7 genius brain boosters to try in the morning.
For illustration, consider amphetamines, Ritalin, and modafinil, all of which have been proposed as cognitive enhancers of attention. These drugs exhibit some positive effects on cognition, especially among individuals with lower baseline abilities. However, individuals of normal or above-average cognitive ability often show negligible improvements or even decrements in performance following drug treatment (for details, see de Jongh, Bolt, Schermer, & Olivier, 2008). For instance, Randall, Shneerson, and File (2005) found that modafinil improved performance only among individuals with lower IQ, not among those with higher IQ. [See also Finke et al 2010 on visual attention.] Farah, Haimm, Sankoorikal, & Chatterjee 2009 found a similar nonlinear relationship of dose to response for amphetamines in a remote-associates task, with low-performing individuals showing enhanced performance but high-performing individuals showing reduced performance. Such ∩-shaped dose-response curves are quite common (see Cools & Robbins, 2004)
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Obviously, as you can see, there are a host of benefits to the better living through science to be had through optimizing your brain with specific compounds. So, putting aside the intriguing topic of psychedelics for the moment (yes, yes, I know you probably want to know how to microdose with LSD or psilocybin), what’s the difference between a smart drug and a nootropic, and how do you choose which to take? You’re about to find out.
But there’s a surprising lack of skepticism in the room. That’s because this is a weekly meetup of amateur biohackers. In fact, positivity is one of their ground rules. Members share experiences with ketogenic diets, biofeedback apps, sensory-deprivation tanks, and, lately, a class of smart drugs known as “nootropics.” Their primary obsession is brain enhancement.
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As with any thesis, there are exceptions to this general practice. For example, theanine for dogs is sold under the brand Anxitane is sold at almost a dollar a pill, and apparently a month’s supply costs $50+ vs $13 for human-branded theanine; on the other hand, this thesis predicts downgrading if the market priced pet versions higher than human versions, and that Reddit poster appears to be doing just that with her dog.↩
Methylphenidate – a benzylpiperidine that had cognitive effects (e.g., working memory, episodic memory, and inhibitory control, aspects of attention, and planning latency) in healthy people. It also may improve task saliency and performance on tedious tasks. At above optimal doses, methylphenidate had off–target effects that decreased learning.